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Senators say injured soldiers who retire still waiting months for needed benefits

Injured members of the Canadian Armed Forces are still waiting months after retirement to receive needed benefits, despite a year-old defence policy that promises those payments will be in place before military personnel are released to civilian life.

On Wednesday, the Senate subcommittee on veterans’ affairs made public a report that looks at the issues facing soldiers, sailors and aviators as they end their military careers. It makes 13 recommendations, the first of which says no member of the Forces should be released until all benefits and services from all sources are ready to be paid.

That echoes recommendations made in recent years by the Veterans’ Ombudsman, the National Defence Ombudsman and the Commons veterans’ affairs committee.

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The government released a National Defence Department policy in June, 2017, that said a new transition group, with 1,200 employees, would be created to ensure that all Veterans Affairs Canada benefits are activated before a member transitions to their post-military life.

But the senators say the promise has not yet been kept.

“Being told your military career is over because of your injuries is traumatic enough. This only adds to their suffering,” Mobina Jaffer, the deputy chair of the committee, told a news conference. “It embarrasses me that we’ve let veterans down.”

There was a time, not long ago, that some retiring military personnel were waiting many months for their pension benefits. That has significantly improved, said Guy Parent, the Veterans Ombudsman.

Defence department spokesman Derek Abma said Monday that 98 per cent of all releasing members are getting their first pension cheque within 45 days of their release.

But there are still delays in the awarding of benefits and services by Veterans Affairs Canada, Mr. Parent said in a telephone interview.

“Some people are financially in need because they are retiring from the Forces at reduced salary,” Mr. Parent said.

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“There is the frustration that goes with having no answer to an application for benefits, trying to find out whether you are going to get them or not,” he said. “That can lead to process fatigue, where people are just discouraged to apply for benefits because it takes too long. These things are affecting veterans and their families.”

Gary Walbourne, the National Defence Ombudsman, also highlighted the problem in a recent report card, saying the Armed Forces has accepted but not yet implemented the recommendation to refrain from medically releasing members until all benefits have been confirmed and put in place.

Mr. Walbourne said in an e-mail on Wednesday that he welcomed the fact that the Senate committee highlighted the issue in its report and said he hoped that both the National Defence and Veterans Affairs departments will consider the recommendation.

Mr. Abma of the defence department said the new transition group that was part of the defence strategy will be established in November of this year. In addition, he said, there are a number of other investments and changes that will come into effect over the next two years to streamline and improve services for releasing members.

While the recommendation that military members be kept on the defence payroll until their benefits are in place is not new, Ms. Jaffer said the testimony before the committee of General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, convinced her that the military is prepared to take the matter seriously.

The senators said two other recommendations included in their report should also be implemented immediately.

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They urged Veterans Affairs Canada to maintain a maximum ratio of 25 veterans per case worker. Department spokesman Marc Lescoutre said in an e-mail that the ratio in December, 2017, was 32 to one, but that has decreased significantly since March, 2015, when it was 41 to one, and the government is proposing to spend $42.8-million over the next two years to further increase its service delivery capacity.

And the Senate said the Forces and Veterans Affairs should issue an identification card to releasing members that would allow them to be easily recognized when dealing with government officials. Both departments said those cards are in the works.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Pierre Daigle holds the position of National Defence Ombudsman. In fact, Gary Walbourne is the ombudsman.
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